Vancouver’s west side exists in a parallel universe, and it’s located in a sprawling gated community in Beijing.
Vancouver Forest is a Chinese interpretation of Vancouver’s west side, designed by a Vancouver firm to look like the old houses of Dunbar, Shaughnessy or Kitsilano.
Each house is different from the other, in old-world styles typical of Vancouver: the Craftsman, the Tudor, the Story Book, with some Victorian thrown in. The garages are out of sight, the streets are in a grid, and they are tree-lined, with gardens. They don’t have the lush, world-famous gardens of Vancouver’s west side, but they are still pretty green for a project 30 minutes from Beijing’s airport.
It’s a rare thing to have an area filled with trees that are decades old – mature by Beijing’s standards – but urban designer Paul Rosenau designed around those trees specifically because they are so rare. Mr. Rosenau is based in Vancouver, but 15 years ago when China began its massive economic growth he spent about 200 days a year there. Their housing economy softened two years ago, but he still spends half the year there.
Vancouver Forest is a residential project with 900 luxury single-family homes on 55 hectares. Developer Beijing Capital Group built it in phases, starting in 2002 and completing in 2015. It was Mr. Rosenau’s first project in China, and it launched his company, EKISTICS, into the Chinese market. He was one of several B.C. firms involved with the project, which is made up of houses 3,000 to 5,000 square feet in size.
His firm, EKISTICS, designed every aspect of the community, including the master planning, architecture and landscape architecture. When it came time to market the project, the developer insisted on calling it after its inspirational westcoast city. Vancouver conveys positive things to the Chinese, enough so that the name also shows up in many condo developments around China.
Charles Pittar, chief executive officer of Chinese real estate website Juwai.com, says it’s popular for developers to build entire communities with international themes. The country has famously replicated even cities, such as Paris, with an Eiffel tower of its own.
“The developer claims to have traveled to Canada more than 10 times to learn more about North American homes and lifestyles,” he said in an email. “They hired Canadian architects to design the whole community and claim to have planted 10,000 trees to give it a suitably leafy environment.”
Like all single-family homes in China, they were marketed to a wealthy buyer. The average price at Vancouver Forest is about $3-million (Cdn.).
“We didn’t like the Vancouver reference but they did,” Mr. Rosenau says of the project name. “It’s based on this notion that a certain look transfers into a certain lifestyle, and a foreign lifestyle is what they want.”
Mr. Rosenau is seated in the boardroom of his Main Street office, having returned from China the day before. Many times, he’s tried to convince developers to go for designs that make sense in China, but foreign house designs, especially Tuscan, which tops the list, are hugely popular there. Only recently, he says, has he seen a little more interest in traditional Chinese home design.
And he does find it ironic that many Chinese foreign buyers who come to Vancouver are demolishing the historic houses that were replicated at Vancouver Forest. But new is better than old. And so is concrete. The big difference between Vancouver houses and Vancouver Forest is wood. Wooden houses are a hard sell in China, so the houses are built using concrete, including concrete mouldings, which don’t have the softness of detail, says Mr. Rosenau. Only the show houses at Vancouver Forest were built using wood.
Mr. Rosenau has a unique perspective into the Chinese housing market because it’s occupied so much of his business – about 70 per cent, which is why he keeps an office in Shanghai. Developers often invite him to speak at design conferences in China. He’s worked for eight out of 10 of the biggest developers in that country, and he’s more famous there than here, he says.
“We hit the market there almost at perfect time,” he says. “It was very lucrative, and it still is. We had some very good years.”
Mr. Rosenau started his company, EKISTICS, in 1992, and he has designed communities in Whistler, the Okanagan and around the Lower Mainland.
Mr. Rosenau figures he’s designed about 500 housing communities for Chinese cities – and he also estimates that about half of them are empty. That includes Vancouver Forest.
“A lot of our projects sit 50 per cent empty, not because they’re not sold. They are sold overnight. What’s interesting about the Chinese market is – and this is very different than here, very different than our culture – is people don’t really believe in putting their money into the bank. Anyone who has money, as soon as they have enough saved up, they buy a piece of real estate. These are middle- to upper-middle-class people. A lot of my friends in China, professional designers, someone like me, the boss of a [boutique] company like this one, they all own 15 or 20 apartments or houses. I have a friend who’s the equivalent of me in China, and he has about 20 pieces of real estate. I asked him, ‘Why do you keep buying property?’ He says, ‘how else would I invest my money?’”
In hindsight, Mr. Rosenau can see the appeal. China’s housing market was a sure bet for 15 years, with prices going up as much a 50 per cent in one year. He bought an apartment in Shanghai n 2004 and sold it in 2011, for $1.5-million, five times what he’d paid for it
“My friends over there said, ‘you should have done that 20 times. When you have extra money you just buy another place.’”
He says it’s difficult for Vancouverites to understand the incredible wealth in China, or the building spree the country had been on for 15 years.
To put it in perspective, he describes a high-end project in the city of Shenzhen, involving 27 homes hanging on the side of a mountain. It was 2005, and the developer wanted to sell them for $20-million (U.S.) each.
“I said to him, ‘do you really think you can find 27 people that can pay $20 million for a second home?’ These were vacation homes. They had done a market study, and he said the market study indicated there were 150,000 families in China that could afford a $20-million second home. And that was 2005.”
Vancouver Forest couldn’t be built today, says Mr. Rosenau. The government doesn’t allow low-density single-family projects like Vancouver Forest any more, what with the shortage of affordable housing for so many people. Detached houses are also seen as an elitist form of housing, he says.
As for Vancouver’s impact from Chinese wealth, Mr. Rosenau says it saddens him to see nice old character houses coming down. He’s also concerned about his kids’ futures. But he doesn’t see any way around the forces of a free market economy. In fact, one possibility is that Vancouver could become even more of an attraction for the rich Chinese market. He sees a general distrust of the current government, and concern about the devalued Chinese currency.
“All my personal Chinese friends say they are looking to get a significant portion of their total assets out of China,” he says. “It is pretty common knowledge in China that in order to become rich, most businessmen have more than a few skeletons in the closet. In other words, getting rich had a lot to do with knowing the right government officials at the right time and greasing the wheels where necessary. Many of these same businessmen are now so worried by the federal government’s witch hunt to root out corruption that they are looking abroad to get their money out in case of the need for a quick exit. It is surprising how many Chinese actually think this way.
“When and if the real estate market totally crashes in China then the economy will totally grind to a halt. If this happens, there is nothing to hold a rich business person in China, and at that time I could see a lot of the wealthy people in China flocking to Vancouver to permanently live and retire in a more desirable and livable city than any city in China.”